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When waste goes global

Reuse is often seen as the more complicated version of recycling because it involves working with a product that can vary in quality, product and quantity, making it a difficult business to predict. But being a rung above recycling in the waste hierarchy it is the more preferred option environmentally, although still quite a rare service in the waste industry.

Precycle Group managing director Taskeen Ahmed comments: “There has been far less emphasis on reuse than what people normally think of as recycling, which is the reprocessing of items. In a way, reuse is more complicated because it is not just graded by composite but also by the condition it is in [and whether it can be reused]. In recycling, the emphasis has been on remanufacturing things so, for most [of the public], recycling has been seen in the form of kerbside and bring banks.

“Where things are reused, such as in charity shops, they are presented in a different manner and I don’t think the public necessarily sees the connection between reusing things and recycling.”

The Precycle Group, headquartered in Reading, specialises in reuse. It began life as a textile recycler, but the business grew when it found that the gap for collecting unwanted charity shop items which can be sold overseas was huge.

“Men in Ghana need office shirts to go to work, but they don’t want white office shirts because the collars get too dirty”

“We’ve gone from being a small regional recycler to a big one. We’ve diversified into all types of material,” says Ahmed. “Over five or six years we’ve built up the collection of dry recyclable items and pioneered it. We collect 400 tonnes of these reusable items a week. We collect from 40% of all charity shops, which makes us the biggest player in the sector. We have nine depots around the country, including Leeds, Newcastle, Reading and Exeter. We want to develop a service with all charity shops from the UK depots. That’s the beauty of the business,” says Ahmed.

The company has been celebrating the signing of the charity sector’s biggest reuse and recycling agreement after partnering with Age UK - the group combining Age Concern and Help the Aged - to collect dry recyclables from 430 of its stores. After a successful trial run at 240 shops, which saw the company divert 850 tonnes of retail waste from landfill, Precycle is now responsible for managing all items of clothing, textiles, shoes, accessories, books, cardboard, plastics and metals that Age UK shops cannot sell. It is a unique set-up.

When the company decided to expand its service, the first items it focused on were books. “Over two to three years, we looked at the wholesale markets of books for re-reading,” says Ahmed. “They were all going to landfill. They could have been pulped by paper recyclers, but charity shops have a relatively small amount of material and paper recyclers don’t want a few kilos a week - they want tonnes.”

Research was key to the creation of the book reuse service, which helped Precycle to determine which genre of books are the most attractive to which countries. “It was interesting to discover where the markets are and what books go where. In Pakistan they love educational or ‘coffee table’ books. In South Africa, on the other hand, they can’t get enough of Mills & Boon,” says Ahmed.

Interestingly, those overseas consumers of our old books are not people without money but are instead the middle classes, who can read but may not be able to afford the excessive prices of a new book. In South Africa, for example, a brand new book can cost £10-£12, while a second-hand book is just £2-£3. Ahmed adds: “Eighty per cent of the Indian population are still living on less than two dollars a day. They can’t read or write, so they’re not interested in books. It’s the middle classes who are.”

Precycle is currently developing its bric-a-brac reuse stream. It is going through the same research process as that for books, first sending out 15-20 tonnes of ornaments to different countries to find out what types and styles of figurines, vases, pictures and cutlery are sought after in which countries. The company is giving itself two years to develop this stream and find out more about the trends and fashions that are most valuable overseas.

It is a similar process to what Precycle did with its textile business. Ahmed says: “As an example, men in Ghana need office shirts to go to work, but they don’t want white office shirts because the collars get too dirty.” That is simple but valuable knowledge. “This is why it takes so long to build up a market: you need to know the minute details.” He adds that, for women in Ghana, bras are as vital as a man’s office shirt because, without these undergarments, women are prohibited from working. This need for underwear spurred Precycle on to look at partnering an underwear retailer to raise awareness of this. The are currently in negotiations.

Plastics such as CDs, DVDs and coat hangers, metals, shoes and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) are all collected by Precycle as well. Such items are recycled rather than being reused because it would prove too tricky to sell on CDs and DVDs which could be scratched and unplayable.

Precycle picks up unwanted items from the shops for free, paying them a set price. “How much money the shop receives depends on the type of material,” Ahmed explains. “For textiles we pay per kilo, but for other items we give an overall fee, so we will collect it as a group of books, plastic, WEEE and metal. We pay a constant fee and fluctuations are absorbed, so the risk [of volatile prices] is mitigated.

“A charity shop would typically spend £1,100 on disposal of waste each year. We’ve managed to halve this because we take the bulk out of their bins. We generated £4m of income for Age UK by May this year, and we’ve managed to divert 8,000 tonnes of material for recycling from 2003-10.”

And collections do not end there. Precycle also launched a doorstep collection service, in partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, almost 18 months ago and it has generated more than £100,000 in revenue for the charity.

This unique company is clear about its reuse intentions. But Ahmed believes that more needs to be done to support the reuse sector in the good work that it does.

“One aspect is the legal framework, [run between the] Environment Agency and the Transfrontier Shipment Agency. It is very confusing about what is classed as waste and what is not. For example, you might think clothes put on the doorstep to be collected for reuse are waste. But people are washing and ironing items before putting them out in bags, which is very different to other ideas of waste in your bin.”

He believes that not explaining clearly to people how recycling works and what the supply chains are can lead to negative publicity, such as seeing WEEE being dumped overseas. He says the positive aspects must be focused on.

“Take African [women needing underwear to feel comfortable in the workplace] as an example. If they cannot work they are disenfranchised. But by selling quality, low-cost, wearable items into these markets, they can go to work, generate additional income into the family and perhaps send their children to school. The whole socio-economic side of reuse is very important. It is a side that people don’t always get to hear about but they should. Then they can trust the recycling process and know the broader impacts of recycling, so we can engage them even more.”

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